Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
See review for details
Placido Domingo et al.
WARNER MUSIC 50-51865-5673-2-5 [3 DVDs: 130:00 + 110:00 + 140:00]

That ‘Volume 1’ in the title promises others to follow. And already Warner have announced a Volume 2 devoted to three Verdi operas, again featuring Domingo in recordings from their extensive catalogue. The truly great tenor is now in his sixty-ninth year and seemingly still prepared to add to his one hundred and thirty plus roles on stage and disc. He has recently learnt Simon Boccanegra, a supposed baritone role and there have been performances in Berlin, New York and London.

The three Puccini roles he undertakes in this collection - Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, Cavaradossi in Tosca and Dick Johnson in La fanciulla del West - were central to his repertoire in his earlier years on the international circuit. These recordings find him in his vocal and acting prime. The three-disc box stresses that this Live Tosca is in its first ever manifestation on DVD. Issued under licence, this 1992 RADA film was unique in conception and realisation at the time. It was famously made live at the precise locations, times of day, within a day, of the drama of the play set in 1800. It was a period of persecution of Republicans with Rome about to be invaded by Napoleon. The live performance, in its three instalments, was transmitted world-wide, by satellite, to over one hundred countries. It is perhaps a sad commentary to read the names of the African countries involved, as many are now tyrannies even worse than that of 1800 Rome, and whose present day communications do not even run to internal railways let alone television relays from another continent.

The order of the operas in the packaging, and in the accompanying booklet, gives precedence to the performance of Tosca, the last in recorded sequence by date. In making my comments I have followed the order of composition. It seems more appropriate as the three works represent three periods of Puccini’s life and compositional development.

Manon Lescaut - opera in four acts (1893)
Manon Lescaut - Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano)
Lescaut, Manon’s brother and Sergeant in the Kings Guard - Thomas Allen (baritone)
Cavalier des Grieux, a student - Placido Domingo (tenor)
Geronte, wealthy Treasurer-General - Forbes Robinson (bass)
Edmondo, a student - Robin Leggate (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Giuseppe Sinopoli
rec. May 1983
Producer: Götz Friedrich
Scenery: Günther Schneider-Siemssen
Video Director: Humphrey Burton
Picture Format 4:3. Colour. Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut had, to say the least, a difficult gestation. For the composer, who had enticed another man’s wife to live with him, it was make-or-break time. His first two operas, Le villi premiered on 31 May 1884, and Edgar at La Scala on 21 April 1889, were only modestly received. He couldn’t settle with the chosen librettists who were changed to the extent that none would put his name to the programme at the premiere. Being aware of these difficulties, and that La Scala was to premiere Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, shortly after the scheduled premiere of Manon Lescaut, the publisher Ricordi moved the venue to Turin. Despite these last minute fears the work was a resounding success. The applause began with the brief tenor aria Tra voi, belle in act 1 (Ch. 4) when Puccini had to appear on stage to acknowledge the applause. At the end of the performance the composer and cast took thirty curtain calls. Manon Lescaut set Puccini on a secure financial and artistic future. Whilst not rivalling La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly among Puccini’s most popular works it has all the hallmarks of the compositional style in those works. Like all of them it has a fraught emotional story including a typical passionate melodic aria for the heroine.

This 1983 recording looks its age with lack of clarity and dynamism in the picture, much the same as with the 1980 Metropolitan Opera’s performance featuring Domingo and Renata Scotto (see review). Both are better seen on a smaller TV screen than a big one. The Met production, by the composer Gian-Carlo Menotti, in naturalistic and ornate sets by Gil Weschler, was revisited in 2008 and recorded in High Definition, complete with heightened lighting. It featured Karita Mattila and Marcello Giordani in the main roles (see review). If this Covent Garden set were similarly treated it would doubtless raise its visual impact as the naturalism is appropriate. However, even in act two, Geronte’s opulent home, the stage appearance fails to have visual impact. Otherwise future technology may make a greater visual impact possible from the existing source enabling this performance to become a major competitor with later recordings. This is particularly as the three principals are among the very best available in terms of singing and acting.

Kiri Te Kanawa has often been criticised for histrionic blandness. Not so here. Her facial expression and body language superbly portray Manon’s many moods from flirtatious via avarice to despair. Her singing likewise reflects the same moods with legato and passionate declamation and darkening of tone to the fore as needed and appropriate. There are also a few pure high B flats along the way. Placido Domingo perhaps responds to Levine’s conducting somewhat better than Sinopoli’s, being marginally more ardent and desperate in the last act as Des Grieux and Manon face the inevitability of death. That’s as may be but his strong lyric singing is a further strength to this performance. To add to this duo, Thomas Allen gives an outstanding portrayal as Lescaut. Allen always looks the part and sings with vocal strength and depth of characterisation whether as card-playing drunk or as pimp. Forbes Robinson as Geronte is a disappointment vocally. It was not many years before this performance I saw him as Boris with Welsh National Opera; he no longer matches that vocal standard here.

Humphrey Burton’s video management only falls down in the last act with close-ups exposing the sand of the desert as cloth material.

Tosca - opera in three acts (1900)
Filmed in the settings and at the times in the opera
Tosca - Catherine Malfitano (soprano)
Mario Cavaradossi - Placido Domingo (tenor)
Baron Scarpia - Ruggero Raimondi (bass-baritone)
Angelotti - Giacomo Prestia (bass)
Spoletta - Mauro Buffolì (baritone)
Sacristan - Giorgio Gatti (baritone)
Sciarrone - Silvestro Sammaritano (tenor)
Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of Rome RAI/Zubin Mehta
rec. July 1992.
Conceived and produced by Andréa Andermann
Director: Giuseppe Patroni Griffi
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Directed for video: Brian Large
Picture Format 4:3. Colour. LPCM Stereo
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian

After Manon Lescaut Puccini had no financial worries. He bought property at Torre del Lago, enjoyed the company of friends in his thatched shack on the lake and indulged his love of hunting and fishing. He also enjoyed amorous liaisons to the chagrin of Elvira which seriously damaged his home life. Perhaps as a consequence he travelled widely following his operas. Under pressure from Ricordi he was on the look-out for suitable stories as a basis for a new opera and particularly for a poet to write the libretto. Eventually, and after some disagreement with Leoncavallo who had his eyes on the same story, Puccini got together with the poet and playwright Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906) and the author and librettist Luigi Illica (1857-1919) to produce La Boheme. The result was premiered to acclaim in Turin in 1896. Together with Ricordi they were responsible for La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, three of Puccini’s most successful works. This was achieved despite being a sometimes less than cordial coalition. Tosca followed four years after La Boheme and then came Butterfly in 1904. This was a pace of composition that Verdi only attained after around twenty of his operatic compositions and which Donizetti and Rossini never did.

All three operas are stories of love, and in the case of Tosca, interleaved with jealousy and political intrigue. The trio have a commonality of melodic invention and orchestration that is unmistakably Puccini. The story of Tosca, and its setting in three of Rome’s most iconic locations, has an extraordinary element of brutality towards the female heroine. This bleakness towards the fair sex is not unusual in Puccini’s compositions. It perhaps reflects the composer’s fundamental attitude manifested in his womanising.

The memory of watching the three acts of this performance of Tosca, live during its world-wide transmission in 1992 has long stayed with me; its emergence on DVD, at last, is to be welcomed without reservation. At the time, Domingo’s stumble, as he descended the scaffold from his painting position, made me catch my breath for a moment. He took it in his stride and without an interruption to his singing. That stumble has been cunningly edited out. Whilst I do not remember the overlays of faces or situations now present, they would have had less impact at the time making memory unreliable. What is present is the visual vividness of the Rome locations, the dawn breaking for the last act over the skyline and the audio quality. This was no dubbed sound as on the later film with Alagna, Gheorghiu and Raimondi. The wonders of technology as to how the quality was captured, and the co-ordination between orchestra and singers was achieved, deserve a detailed explanation sometime. Only in the open air of Act Three did I find a little flatness in what is otherwise a vivid aural image.

Domingo’s singing and acting is the highlight along with the venues, the production itself and the video presentation. I do not underestimate the vocal contribution of Catherine Malfitano in particular, and Ruggero Raimondi, but the tenor’s singing is intensely involving and his portrayal of the characters superbly characterised. This can be witnessed from the ardent love duet of Act One to his phrasing of E lucevan le stele in act three. Domingo is outstanding and this is an interpretation to treasure. The other two principals give outstandingly acted performances without scaling the heights of vocal performance achieved by Domingo. Malfitano acts with her eyes and whole body; her involvement is total. If she does not match the tonal beauty of Gheorghiu then it must be remembered that this was live whilst the other was a dubbed studio recording, doubtless edited and with the benefit of several takes. Raimondi is the evil, brutal and sadistic Scarpia in both performances. He is perhaps even more visually threatening in the second, with his crew-cut hair, than here where the white streak has an element of humanity about it albeit this is not reflected in his saturnine portrayal. He is quite chilling if not vocally perfect.

The secondary singing roles, particularly that of Giacomo Prestia as Angelotti and Giorgio Gatti as the Sacristan, are also significant whilst the orchestral contribution and chorus under Zubin Mehta represent the icing on the cake. A warm welcome back to this ground-breaking endeavour.

La fanciulla del West - opera in three acts (1910)
Minnie - Carol Neblett (soprano)
Dick Johnson - Placido Domingo (tenor)
Jack Rance - Silvano Carrolli (baritone)
Nick - Francis Egerton (tenor)
Ashby - Robert Lloyd (bass)
Jake Wallace - Gwynne Howell (bass)
Miners - John Rawnsley, John Dobson, Tom McDonnell, Ian Caddy, Robin Leggate, Roderick Earle, Paul Crook, Norman Welsby
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Nello Santi
rec. May 1983
Producer: Piero Faggioni
Set design: Ken Adam
Costumes and lighting: Piero Faggioni
Directed for video: John Vernon
Picture Format 4:3. Colour. Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Subtitles: English, German, Spanish

After Tosca, Madama Butterfly came relatively quickly, at least for Puccini. Its premiere took place at La Scala in May 1904, his first there since the ill-fated Edgar. With Giacosa and Illica as librettists, Puccini felt certain of success. Instead it was a fiasco with the composer and publisher paying back their share of the first night proceeds to withdraw it from further performances. With major revisions it was given three months later in Brescia where its éclat surpassed that of its predecessors.

As Madama Butterfly went around the world so did Puccini, always looking for a suitable story and also appraising other librettists. The death, in 1906, of Giacosa, who had put Illica’s scenarios into verse, was the final straw to end that highly successful liaison. The following year the composer went to New York for a season of his operas. Before his departure a friend, who had just returned from there, urged him to see Belasco’s current play Girl of the Golden West. Puccini was impressed but, as ever, uncertain. He did, however, ask Belasco for a copy of the play and commissioned a translation. By 1908 he was composing it and after a visit by conductor Toscanini, and newly appointed general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Gatti-Casazza, it was decided that the premiere would be in that theatre. A tragic interruption came with the suicide of a servant girl of Puccini’s household. There was the suspicion that he, ever the womaniser, had had, as Elvira, now his wife, claimed, a liaison with her. Eventually a court case was settled and Puccini and his son travelled to New York for the premiere in 1910. The cast principals comprised Caruso, Emmy Destinn and Pasquale Amato with Toscanini on the rostrum. It was a success with audiences; less so with critics. What is obvious is that it is no Boheme with its string of melodic arias. It is more of a narrative in declamatory style. It sports what might be termed an Italian version of sprechgesang to keep the story rolling.

The present production was first seen in 1977. At that time stagings of La fanciulla had become something of a rarity. This 1983 recording was the first reprise of the production, with the theatre assembling the same cast of principals as in the first run six years before. In September 2008 the production had its eighth revival with Piero Faggioni returning to ensure the complications of the story, in his mammoth staging, were well rehearsed and realised. Antonio Pappano conducted. The production’s longevity at Covent Garden has not yet rivalled John Copley’s 1974 La Boheme, which was recently recorded and issued on DVD, albeit with a less illustrious cast than it had often seen in its earlier existences. The 1964 Zeffirelli production of Tosca, for Callas and Gobbi, has bit the dust and maybe the other two may be treated to some new concept soon. Just think how many productions of Aida and Marriage of Figaro have come and gone at Covent Garden since 1977. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is a good adage, particularly as we enter a period of austerity that is bound to impinge on the arts. Expensive productions, such as this and of Manon Lescaut above, will become even more precious and worthy of revival and perhaps of refurbishment. They also have the virtue of being “Koncept” free, unlike what is likely to replace them and which, all too often, seems to please London critics but not audiences.

The original 1977 production has some history for me. I had tickets for the Saturday matinee performances when my wife fell ill with pneumonia. The tickets went to friends and we listened to the broadcast with the audience singing “Happy birthday to you” to Domingo. A-once-in-a-lifetime occasion missed!

Domingo is in first class voice and sings a particularly ardent and tonally ringing Dick Johnson. His acting matches the virility of his singing. It is one of his best performances captured on film. He had debuted as Otello between the original and this reprise. Whilst his voice has greater strength and colour than before, it is still that of a true lyric tenor with a natural Italianate squilla to the fore. He sings without baritonal overtones and reaches his higher notes with clarity and ease. As the eponymous ‘girl’ Carol Neblett is as near perfection visually, as an actress, and vocally, as one could wish. Why she did not have a more significant career I do not know. She is perhaps a bit too tall in a period when ‘sizeism’ was becoming more of an issue in the lyric theatre. Mimis and Violettas were expected to look consumptive and frail rather than floating vocal galleons. Neblett really looks and acts the part in its many facets as she reads the Bible to the miners in Act One or brings them to heel as Minnie rescues Johnson in Act Three. Her vocal characterization and acting is outstanding. Watch her as Minnie gives Johnson her first kiss, and then has to face the realisation that he is a bandit, then rescue him after being shot. Domingo got the gallery flowers at the curtain; she really deserved those as well as the theatre bouquet. Silvano Carrolli acts well as Rance, his demeanour, whether in morning suit and top hat or flowing fur coat, is threatening and intimidating just as required. His dark baritone, maybe bass-baritone, has the odd moment of spread and unsteadiness under pressure, but the moment soon passes.

Another outstanding feature of the casting is the appearance of a bevy of Covent Garden regulars in the minor parts. Francis Egerton as Nick, and Robert Lloyd and Gwynne Howell are particularly notable. The sound comes over well with Nello Santi conducting as to the manner born. Despite being contemporaneous with the Manon Lescaut above, the photography is significantly sharper. There is no difficulty in picking out the detail of the darker scenes. The video direction is nicely balanced between close and wider shots of the setting.

Robert J Farr

Focused on Domingo, but also full of fine singing, this competitively priced collection includes the return of the famous 1992 live Tosca to the catalogue